Monday, January 18, 2010

So many books to throw on the ground, like this one

James Bradley's The Imperial Cruise is a book that could have been quite good, and perhaps even important, but it isn't. Instead it is a maddening, bitchy book that attempts to reassess Theodore Roosevelt's foreign policy. Bradley's thesis is that the American ruling class had an ideology based around an Aryan ideal of the Anglo Saxon. Raising the Anglo Saxon above all others, the US felt free to trample across anyone in its path. The US recognized the Japanese as almost Anglo Saxons and gave them the nod to occupy Korea. This occupation led to the growth of the Japanese Empire, Pearl Harbor, the rise of Communist China and I suppose everything else that happened in Asia in the 20th century.

Where to begin on the book's problems? First is the relatively insignificant one. Bradley really dislikes Roosevelt and his Secretary of War William Taft. He goes out of his way to show that Roosevelt really wasn't much of a Westerner and was basically an upper class sissy. He makes sure we know that Taft was overweight, even calling him Big Bill with regularity. Is this necessary to support his argument? No, but it reveals the contempt for the subject which weakens and cheapens the book.

The bigger problem is with his idea that racism inspired and allowed the cruel Japanese occupation of Korea and created the path for the tragedies of the 20th century. Firstly, what on Earth could the U.S. (or anyone else) do to stop Japan from taking Korea? Russia and China were down for the count, England was retreating to Europe to face the Germans and the United States wasn't strong enough. In 1905, it is hard to imagine the United States managing to fight the Japanese Army and Navy thousands of miles from major bases (Yes, it did to Spain a few years prior, but Spain was on its last legs.)

What's worse though is the idea that it was the United States rather than Japan's own domestic path and the prevailing norms of the great powers that led the country to imperialism. His argument implies that the Japanese were the simple puppets of the United States rather than a state setting its own priorities. If the U.S. had somehow kept the Japanese from taking Korea in 1905, they would have taken it in the next few years and certainly would taken it in the chaos of World War One, just as they used the opportunity to seize all of Germany's possessions in Asia.

This book is a lost opportunity. Clearly racism played a role in American foreign policy throughout the world, but how important was it? Did it cause the United States to neglect certain material interests and focus on others? You won't learn anything like that in this book. If you want analytical revisionism, go read Chalmers Johnson or Andrew Bacevich.


Citizen Reader said...

Do you like James Bradley otherwise? I've always thought of him as a hack historian who mainly appeals to readers who enjoy books like Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation." This is unfair, as I've never really read him. Do you think other of his books were better?

Tripp said...

I haven't read his other books, although I have seen reviews that say those are much better than this one.

On your larger point, I agree, this is hack history. The sort that sells much better than the good kind.

Erik the Reader said...

I have not read the book, but the post makes me to pick up the book from the ground or even from the library floor.